A couple days ago I reviewed the first of several objections to petitionary prayer that a second century pagan philosopher named Maximus of Tyre raises in the fifth of his Philosophical Orations (entitled “On Prayer"). Maximus’ second argument is even stronger than the first, in my opinion. Let’s look at it.
Comparing God to a wise doctor and humans who pray to patients making requests of this doctor, Maximus says; “If [the request] is efficacious [that is, beneficial] the doctor will give it unasked; if it is dangerous, he will withhold it even when asked.” The point Maximus is making is that, on the assumption that God is all good, it seems that if a person asks God to do something that is best to do, God would do it even if the person hadn’t asked. (What else does it mean to say that God is “all good” except that he never refrains from doing the best thing?) For the exact same reason, if what a person is petitioning God for is something that is not best, it seems God will not do this thing despite the fact that he was asked. For again, an “all-good” God never does anything that is less than the greatest good. So either way, Maximus argues, bringing requests before God is futile.
Do you see a flaw in this argument? It’s found, I believe, in the limitations of the doctor-patient analogy. If our relationship with God could be exhaustively defined as a doctor-patient relationship – that is, if the sole purpose of our relationship with God was to get cured from a disease – then Maximus’ argument might hold water. But from a New Testament perspective, God doesn’t want to relate to us simply to get us healed. He wants to relate to us because he simply loves us. The highest good that God is aiming at is an eternal, marriage-like love relationship with humans who reign with him over the earth forever (2 Tim. 2:12 Rev. 5:10; 20:6).
If this kind of relationship is what God is aiming at, it changes everything. It’s true that an all-good God must by definition always do the best thing. But the biblical understanding of the highest good being a reciprocal love relationship not only allows for, but requires, mutual influence between God and humans. If humans are to be genuine co-workers (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1), co-rulers (2 Tim.2:12) and marriage partners (Jn 3:29; Rev. 19:7; 21.2; 22:17) with God, we have to have the ability not only to be impacted by God, but to impact God. What kind of marriage relationship is it if one partner is not in any respect influenced by the other partner? In what way could a one-way relationship be called a co-partnership and co-rulership? Of course, the relationship between us and God is not symmetrical. He is Lord, we are not. But it is nevertheless reciprocal. God impacts us and we impact God.
In this light we can see where Maximus’ reasoning is wrong, and how it is that our prayers genuinely make a difference to God and thus to the way events unfold in the world.
Maximus has one more argument against petitionary prayer we need to examine. It has to do with predestination. I'll get to that in the next few days.